Aallotar review: collaboration, commitment, courage

Finnish-American chamber folk duo blends classical influences and traditional dance music to create original compositions

By DANIEL HEILA

At Aallotar’s July 29 concert at the beautifully austere Nordia House, the Finland/Minnesota duo played with an intensely graceful stage presence against a lovely backdrop, through plate glass windows, of the Nordic culture center’s patio garden. There and at the band’s next show at Cottage Grove’s Axe and Fiddle, the reception was positive and enthusiastic, the performances quite relaxed, with atmospheric arrangements and earthbound tempos.

Aallotar

Yet even though many in the Nordia House audience appeared to be veteran Scandinavian dance music fans, Aallotar didn’t really play traditional dance music. Granted, the roots of Aallotar’s music lie with pelimanni, the Finnish version of traditional Nordic dance music. Think of the music your Lutheran grand-relatives danced schottisches, polkas, mazurkas, and hambos to.

But with Aallotar, the dance forms are transformed, expanded, and updated (although, on both nights, they indulged their audiences by slipping into a straight-up polska or two). More familiar with the up-tempo, rollicking dance tunes of popular Finnish pelimanni folk bands such as Frigg, JPP, and the more obscure Pinnin Pojat, I was challenged by the pair’s interpretations. Throughout the concerts, enchanted by clear, precise vocal technique and intelligent arrangements, I wondered, “How did these women arrive at this music?”

Part of the answer is: via the internet, of course. After meeting in Finland, accordionist Teija Niku and Finnish-American violinist Sara Pajunen became friends and musical partners. They began their collaboration by sharing mp3 files via the audio app Soundcloud. Each would listen to the other’s contribution, add their own, and exchange the file back and forth until an arrangement was arrived at. These efforts are then polished and mastered for recordings and tours. A truly modern effort.

Converging Traditions

In fact, as Pajunen explained, their work is the coming together of two traditions. Both grew up immersed in Finnish folk music and both went on to university music studies. However, as Niku continued exploring world folk music, earning a master’s degree from Finland’s Sibelius Academy, Pajunen pursued classical training and is currently studying contemporary improvisation at New England Conservatory while keeping one foot in the tupa (kitchen) of Finnish folk music. There were moments of restrained, but tasteful improvisation, accompanied by gauzy ostinatos and warm, grounding pedal tones (bass notes held throughout a section). These sections really opened up the tunes’ structures.

The fusion of western folk and classical music is fertile ground. But although historic examples lean heavily toward classical concert music (Bartok, Stravinsky, Copland, etc.), many recent projects have favored the folksier side: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Journey, the bluegrass-inspired Punch Brothers’ tips of the hat to classical forms and jazz improvisation.

Still, that information, shared with me over a beer at the Axe and Fiddle in Cottage Grove, didn’t quite explain why Aallotar’s music sounded so different from other contemporary Finnish folk. I turned to Pajunen’s powerful recent performative research project, Laatiko/Box, which blends archival material and recent interviews of immigrants to the US with electro-acoustic vocal and violin music. I came away with the sense that the immigrant experience was often communicated via the female perspective. Though Pajunen said she doesn’t feel she focused on the female experience in that project, she and Niku did reference their grandmothers’ and great-grandmother’s experiences as immigrants throughout their chamber folk performances at both Nordia House and the Axe and Fiddle, and the lyrics of a few of their pieces came from the female perspective.

Pajunen conceded, finally, that there was definitely some “dude energy” in the folk music scene (as well as the contemporary improv scene) that she and Niku existed outside of. But she felt that was by choice, not a result of being female. She gave the common example (one that I have experienced as a free-improvising musician) of a male improviser going off into his own little cathartic diatribe while others patiently waited for him to give some room. That’s fine with her, she explained, he can do that if he wants. But she’s gonna go over there and do this other, more democratic thing. 

In fact, in our conversation, I detected a healthy tension between the two. The strength of Pajunen’s intellectual, academic responses was tempered and balanced nicely by Niku’s more intuitive, emotionally intelligent responses. They admitted that, though they challenge each other genre-wise, neither likes to bend too far. This dynamic tension produces contemporary Finnish folk music, molded by the pair’s sensitive virtuosity and respect for tradition into chamber concert music of the highest quality. Perhaps that is what sets Aallotar’s music apart from their peers: It is a music born of collaboration, compromise, and determination, powered by a combination of classical training and folk chops.  

And one more ingredient. After remaining quiet throughout the dialog with Pajunen, Niku piped up. “It takes courage to play a set like that.” She explained that it takes guts to play outside the traditional format of dance music, to mess with performative protocols, to present deeply loved material in a new format to audiences who may be expecting something different. “It’s kind of a do-it-yourself attitude,” continued Niku. She spoke of her grandmother who had come to the US on her own volition and then, after ten years, returned to Finland, bucking the prevailing experience. “She just did it,” Niku said.

She explained that her musical efforts were more like a mission than a job, driven by her commitment to her artistic vision and musical ideas. She’s not waiting for an authority to give her permission. She doesn’t tailor her creativity to suit her audience. She follows her authentic path and then leaves it up to listeners to accept or reject her work. How else would a listener discover new music, have new musical experiences? 

Considering the low return-on-investment of this approach to being a performing musician, this is a very brave career trajectory. Here is a musician very capable of achieving widespread approval sidelining that option to pursue newer avenues, staying true to her convictions and thereby offering her audiences deeper, expanded experiences.

Cornelius Cardew, England’s preeminent 20th century experimental composer, once said, “Elaborate forms and a brilliant technique [can] conceal a basic inhibition, a reluctance to directly express love, a fear of self-exposure.” Aallotar’s contemporary chamber folk music is nested in technical prowess and held aloft by masterful arrangements, but the technique is tempered by subtlety and sensitivity, the arrangements add depth and space to the tunes, allowing them to expand into larger, more compelling forms. Just as Pajunen’s violin lines often explore the inner voices of the harmony and are embraced by the accordion’s bass and treble homophony, Aallotar audiences are led lovingly into new musical experiences by these two courageous, fearless musicians.

Those listeners seem ready to follow their lead into unknown territories. When the duo asked the small Axe and Fiddle audience who had heard of Aallotar before that night, only one group of women raised their hands. They were still there, as well as the rest of the house, at the end of the night to compliment and thank the road-weary musicians.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene, Oregon.

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